“Fuzzy stars!” And with that, my then two-year-old Larkin perspicaciously summed up my recent “serious” art purchase and walked off, perfectly happy.
Art has always been an inexplicable love for me. Not inexplicable in the sense that art shouldn’t be loved. Just, with all of the need for justification and productivity and “But, what is the value of it?” that I was pickled in by my upbringing, I had long had a nagging sense that I didn’t quite have—and should have—a really deep, almost theological reason for Art. And for loving it.
I got a BA in Economics and a BS in Finance from Texas Freaking A&M University. Go figure. But again, given my upbringing, it figures. In my defense, I was also about to come into a small but growing inheritance, and I felt like I had to somehow “earn” it and be prudent with it and learn how to be an honorable custodian of it. But, the moment I got those two pieces of paper, I took off for the Rhode Island School of Design, the most prestigious art school in the nation. Can you say diametrically opposite experiences?
I think I am the only student in the history of R.I.S.D. who had a subscription to the Wall Street Journal. In my defense, it just hadn’t expired and I didn’t read it much. Still, it was a talisman of my impending need to withdraw within the year before flunking out. Something in which to wrap the fish so out of water that was me.
So I returned, lost and very much not brave, to Houston and attempted a brief career in portraiture, because “that’s something that people will buy.” After a year in a studio above the shop of a prominent dealer of antique silver that my mother frequented, I gutted it up and went to one of those art openings. A messy collective affair in a raw warehouse just north of downtown that had been illegally carved into studio cubicles with no ceilings, no dedicated electrical circuitry and one communal toilet with a framed index card above it proclaiming, “Don’t Always Flush… if it’s Yellow, let it Mellow.” I got drunk and rented the last 100 square feet. My space included the breaker box that functioned as the de facto light switches for all of the other spaces. Someone would yell, “Number 14, please!” and I would turn on their lights. I didn’t tell my father for 5 months.
My art got better, but it never got really good. Because I never really let go. So I got married, moved to Dallas and began a masters program in American Art and History at S.M.U. It was across the street. Let us say no more.
Then we moved to Austin, I gave birth to Larkin and for the first time in my life knew the drunken transformation of joy. The very air tasted joyful. I bounded around the warmest and happiest city I had ever known, carrying my precious baby in my arms everywhere. To parks and playscapes and restaurants and bars and every last art museum I could find. I had transferred to the PhD program in American Studies at UT but dropped out within the year. Not because of Larkin, though.
I had also set up my art supplies in the enclosed garage of our rental home. It wasn’t what I “did” any more. Graduate school and motherhood were now that. And, with the onus of fiscal productivity now off of art, something shocking happened. My art got good.
Not serious art good. Not museum and art gallery good. I was experimenting with children’s illustrations, and everything—the pencil marks, the splatters of paint, me—just started running around and playing. Relaxed. Sweet and celebratory and child-like and joyful. And good. Good enough to get an agent. Good enough to have many of the largest publishers seriously consider my work. But, no treacly clichéd conclusions here about following your heart and then the traditional success that had been eluding a soul is now found. I never got properly published. But, I got happy. And valid. And successful in my own way, making holiday posters and doing charitable projects and making friends and connections and life in so doing.
And I went to at least a thousand art openings and lectures and symposia as well. Just loving art. And meeting the most astounding souls, deeply intelligent people who were so interesting because they were so interested in something. One of them introduced me to an essay entitled “Frivolity and Unction” in iconoclastic cultural critic Dave Hickey’s seminal book Air Guitar.
“[W]hy don’t all of us art-types summon up the moral courage to admit that what we do has no intrinsic value or virtue – that it has its moments and it has its functions, but otherwise, all things considered, in its ordinary state, unredeemed by courage and talent, it is a bad, silly frivolous thing to do.
[T]he presumption of art’s essential ‘goodness’ is nothing more than a political fiction that we employ to solicit taxpayers’ money… .
The ‘good’ works of art that reside in our museums reside there not because they are ‘good,’ but because we love them.”
Imagine the lightness we would feel if this burden of hypocrisy were lifted from our shoulders – the sheer joy of it.”
Oh, I want to quote the whole thing! It’s screamingly funny as well. I still feel sort of deliciously like a kid every time I read it. Because I am just reading it because… I like to. Because, like the reading itself, much less the content, is a declaration, a liberation, and so much like the quote I once came across from Kurt Vonnegut, so diametrically opposite to every axiom of my forbears:
“I tell you, we are on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
And he made money and did “big” things like write big books.
The big piece of art I had just bought looks like a lyrical drawing from a distance, a 4 foot by 4 foot ball of densely looping circular marks that somehow speak of organic growth, or nature or the cosmos. Or maybe of just farting around. When you get really close to it, just stick your eyes into like a big bouquet and visually sniff it, you realize that it’s made up of hundreds upon of hundreds of Spirograph doodles.
Spirograph! My favorite toy as a kid. And quite meditative, you must admit. It had made me laugh when I first saw the piece at ArtHouse. I had walked into an Important Art Opening and been kind of deflated by the general pomposity of the works I saw around the gallery. You know, lumps of mud in the corner, medical tubing carelessly mounted across a wall alongside a looping video of some naked somebody just standing there. That kind of art. And I recall glancing over, seeing a large piece of paper with an apparently beautiful bunch of pencil marks on it and thought, “Thank God! A piece of art that’s not afraid to be just a regular piece of art!”
I ran over and got right up to it, almost hugging it, and when I realized it was Spirographical, I just burst out laughing. Buying it was just a way of saying, “Let’s play!” It just lit me up, with fuzzy starlight.